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Bad Branding: Another blobby bite at the anti-restraint apple

Unfortunately for establishment critics, the war in Ukraine is making their own case for US primacy less appetizing by the day.

Analysis | Washington Politics

Every few months some card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment takes up his or her pen to explain why the slightest reduction in America’s far-flung overseas commitments would have catastrophic consequences for the Republic. 

This week, that task fell to Hal Brands, an old hand at this game, who took to the pages of the Washington Post and Bloomberg Newsto offer up another ill-aimed attack at the so-called “restraint coalition.”

Brand’s argument is straightforward. Until the war in Ukraine, a broad coalition of isolationists, nationalists, realists, and other dissidents was “ascendant.” According to him, this group wants to drastically reduce America’s current level of global engagement. But Russia’s invasion has reminded us of what can happen if the United States withdraws, and other great powers get to run the world. In his words, it has “illuminated the virtues of American power.” The unstated but unmistakable implication: don’t pay any attention to those foolish restrainers, whose brief moment of prominence is thankfully coming to an end.

The first problem lies in Brands’ characterization of the “restraint coalition.” He acknowledges that it is a “broad church” whose members disagree on many issues. But lumping them all together allows him to portray it as a large and potentially dangerous movement, while sparing him the trouble of addressing their specific policy recommendations. And the differences really aren’t that important, because for Brands, they’re all part of the same team.

According to Brands, what unites this group “is a conviction that the overuse of American power has been catastrophic for America and the world.” Fair enough, and the proper question to ask is whether that view is correct. Is Brands really defending “the overuse of American power?” Does he think the invasion and occupation of Iraq was not a catastrophe? Does he believe that devoting more than a trillion dollars to a failed effort at nation-building in Afghanistan left the United States in a stronger position at home or abroad? Did waging an open-ended “global war on terror” — featuring drone strikes in a dozen or more countries, targeted killings, thousands of civilian deaths, water-boarding and other forms of torture — make America stronger, more prosperous, and freer?  

For that matter, does Brands believe that extending U.S. power right up to Russia’s borders had nothing to do with the growing alignment of Russia and China and Vladimir Putin’s reckless and criminal invasion of Ukraine? And does he think that allowing America’s wealthy European allies to free-ride on U.S. protection and let their own defenses atrophy was in America’s best interest? Did leaving the nuclear deal with Iran and using America’s unmatched power in the global financial system to put “maximum pressure” on Tehran make the United States safer, or has it brought Iran much closer to having its own bomb?

These are some of the “overuses” of American power that restrainers have questioned. If Brands thinks these policies were in America’s interest, he should say so. If not, he must be part of the restraint coalition too. 

Second, Brands’ claim that this coalition was “ascendant” until the invasion of Ukraine is risible. It is true that groups like the Quincy Institute or Defense Priorities are now challenging the stale orthodoxies that have long dominated foreign policy discourse inside-the-Beltway. You would think an “ascendant” coalition would be able to place one or two of its people in positions of influence — or even some minor staff jobs — but you’d have to look long and hard to find any restrainers in the Biden administration. Donald Trump occasionally talked like a restrainer, but he certainly didn’t act that way: eschewing diplomacy, appointing interventionists like H.R. McMaster, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to key positions, ramping up the war on terror, arming Ukraine, and shoveling even more money at the Pentagon. 

The only example of “restraint” that Brands points to is Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The endgame there was painful to watch, but Biden’s decision made sound strategic sense. There was no way to win that 20-year war at an acceptable cost and Biden recognized that staying there longer was not going to change the outcome. Does Brands believe the United States should have fought on with no prospect of victory, making it even harder to respond vigorously to the invasion of Ukraine?

Brands also chides the “restraint coalition” for “attacking” Biden’s Ukraine policy. The only person he mentions by name is Senator Hawley, so it’s impossible to know whose alleged attacks he has in mind. Some restrainers have questioned the wisdom of trying to bring Ukraine into NATO in the first place, but nearly all have supported the Biden administration’s decision to back Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion. Restrainers have raised legitimate concerns about the risks of escalation, the importance of ending the war as quickly as possible, and dangers of a prolonged war that “destroys Ukraine in order to save it.” Brands concedes that these are all legitimate issues, so what’s his beef?

Lastly, Brands claims restrainers are “unwilling to consider what happens after America pulls back.” Once again, he provides no names, citations, or quotations to support this false charge. In fact, restrainers have gone to considerable lengths to consider the implications of their policies, and to explain both the benefits and risks that would accompany them. Brands is free to disagree with these views, but to suggest that restrainers ignore these issues is disingenuous at best.

Ironically, Brands ends his piece by acknowledging that “reasonable people can debate the proper level of American involvement” in regions like the Middle East, and that pouring billions of dollars into Ukraine makes it harder to meet the challenges posed by a rising China. One might add that ill-advised commitments abroad will interfere with much-needed efforts to rebuild the sinews of power here at home, not to mention addressing the ever-growing threats to democracy inside America. 

These are precisely the issues that restrainers have been raising. Unlike Brands, they realize that American power—and especially its military power--is a finite resource that should be used wisely and selectively, and not as the default solution to every global problem.

(Anton Balazh/Shutterstock)
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